If you ask a group of people what helps them lose or maintain weight, chances are a significant portion of them will point to meal prep as the secret ingredient to their success. Jake Hickok, a personal trainer at the prestigious Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, OR, lost 70 pounds before getting his training certification. Now he helps others lose weight and get healthy. “Meal prep is one of the most important things I coach my clients in,” he says. “It was the key to me losing the weight and continues to work for me to help me keep it off.”
What is meal prep, and why does it work for so many people? For one, weight-loss success depends on how good you are at battling impulses. In our society, food is everywhere, all of the time, and our willpower and decision-making skills may wilt in the face of all the easily attainable, cheap, and delicious food we encounter in the course of a day. Meal prep means planning and preparing tasty, healthy snacks and meals ahead of time so you don’t have to think about what’s for dinner and can waltz right on past the hot-pretzel vendor.
Another benefit of meal prep is saving money. Paying $10 a day for even the most modest lunch in a restaurant can add up. Buying produce that’s in season (when it costs less) and lean proteins in bulk (for additional discounts) can really help stretch your food dollar.
And even though you’re putting in time for grocery shopping and cooking a couple of times a week, meal prepping is ultimately a time-saving move.
But how do you get started? Step 1: Ease into it. Don’t tackle a week’s worth of three meals per day. Choose a meal to prep that makes sense for you. Always rushed in the morning? Bake a muffin tin of protein-rich frittatas for grab-and-go noshing. Tempted by the wealth of great pizza places around your workplace? Prep lunches so you won’t give in. You can even prep snacks by portioning out a week’s worth of edamame hummus and baby carrots to stash in the fridge at work.
After you’ve decided which meal to prep, step 2 is getting your equipment together. It’s always nice to have matching containers for prepared meals, but anything from mason jars to clean, repurposed yogurt containers will work, depending on what you’re prepping. Using dishwasher-safe containers will make cleanup easier. Having enough of them for the number of meals you’re making is, of course, crucial.
Make sure you have good measuring utensils, and consider investing in a food scale if portion control is a goal. If meal prep is part of your weight-loss regimen, being portion-conscious is a must—measuring or weighing your portions leads to precision.
Once you have your equipment laid in, it’s time for step 3—menu planning. Fall back on old favorites that can be scaled to your needs, or scour the web or cookbooks for new and exciting ideas. It goes without saying that you should make a list before you head to the grocery store.
Finally, don’t forget food safety. According to the USDA, here are the four steps to making sure your food is safe to eat:
- Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often.
- Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate.
- Cook: Cook to the right temperature.
- Chill: Refrigerate promptly.
Keep food out of the danger zone for bacteria growth—between 40 degrees and 140 degrees—as much as possible. This means, contrary to popular belief, that it’s better to get that hot food portioned out and put in the fridge within 2 hours, rather than letting it come to room temperature first.
Additionally, for cooked meats like chicken or beef, it’s prudent to prep meals for four days instead of five. If anything looks or smells questionable as the week wears on, don’t take any chances—throw it out.
Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter. She is a certified health coach and personal trainer.